What the Cleaner Saw
by Paddy O’Reilly
Published March 2022
There’s something stimulating about seeing into other people’s houses. We’ve all glanced through an open window or door as we pass by on our walks. Seen the old retriever slumped in the doorway, the clutter, the gaudy furniture, the bad renovations; it’s always just a quick glance. It’s no surprise but still uncanny that we live so close together, on top of each other, separated by thin walls and floors, and yet, what goes on in the interiors of our fellow suburbanites’ houses remains mostly a secret. Imagine you were a working-class mother who regularly cleaned these houses. What stories would you tell yourself about the inhabitants as you fluffed up their cushions and scrubbed at their skid marks?
Set primarily in the inner-northern suburbs of Melbourne, Paddy O’Reilly’s Other Houses follows Lily, mother to teenager Jewelee, workmate to Shannon, and partner to Janks (whose perspective alternates with Lily’s). The strongest part of Other Houses is also the simplest: the storyline. It is incredibly refreshing in a world of trauma, tragedy and twists (and in a literary world that often caricatures these) to encounter a story purely about people – missing or not. Other Houses is trauma without the porn. The central plank is Lily’s search for Janks, who has disappeared, but none of this happens with the drama and urgency we have come to expect from encountering similar storylines in books and on screens. Lily, as much as she loves Janks, gets on with her life after he vanishes, in the same way that we all do when tragic things happen. She goes to work, she feeds her daughter, she cleans, she sleeps. She stresses out, yes, and panics, but these responses are flourishes rather than in all-encompassing and incapacitating moments. What this speaks to is just how deftly real the characters are in Other Houses. O’Reilly has written a novel that even in its spectacle, is still entirely discernible, relatable, perceivable. This isn’t something we should take for granted in Australian literature at a time when we crave stories that show us as we are. I can think of three celebrated, recent novels that try to do this but instead end up being hyper-depictions of the lived experience, honed in on pain and suffering without actually saying anything vital, without snapshotting the beauty in the ordinary. Everything the characters do in Other Houses is ordinary, with perhaps the exception of Janks, who, after borrowing money from a local bikies gang, finds himself trapped in an impossible situation.
Other Houses hits all the cultural and social notes of our times: identity politics, the working poor, shame, suburbia, drug addiction, and the Australian Dream. And it does so authentically through the choice and rendition of characters. That the novel covers these issues is purely because the characters are afflicted, shaped and at the intersection of them. In a way, O’Reilly hasn’t created these characters so much as she has reported on them. Reported on their circumstances, living situations, employment, their bodies. I was startled by the poignancy of how Lily’s world, class, job, poverty, and hope too, is stored in her body:
Whenever I look at the stars the vertebrae in my lower back crick and crack. It should feel bad but it feels good, a release from bending, crouching, hunching in a scrubber’s hoop.
And later in the narrative:
We both have to live with the rubbery muscles, the grinding joints, the perished tendons. We are mature women doing a job that should be done in your twenties. But at the end of our workday we’ve left places fresh and clean, and we shut the door and think no more about it.
What do we look like as cleaners? How do we walk as writers? We’re taught from a young age to identify with our vocations. A very common question people ask when meeting for the first time is: what do you do? There is something off about identifying ourselves through what we do for pay. One person lifts boxes, the other lifts lids. In the end all work is work. All work is labour. Maybe when we are asked ‘What do you do?’ we should simply reply, ‘I work’. It probably doesn’t seem that radical a statement for those not living in poverty, but it makes sense for Lily, who, despite all her work, is unable to rise out of it:
Tonight my water-stained ceiling and the creeping draught taunt me that although we’ve adjusted to living here, it might be because we brought things with us when we crossed: rental damp and rot, clothes that fall apart, bank accounts that bounce between payday and zero.
At its core, Other Houses interrogates a worker’s life. It asks: How do we rise up out of poverty and is it even necessary to do so? What drives us? Lily wants to live in a safe area and to provide the best for her daughter, but that isn’t a responsibility that she should alone be tasked with, or that she and Janks could carry with had he not disappeared. The problems that afflict Lily and Jewelee are structural, systemic, rooted in policy and the buffoonery of politics. Lily doesn’t seem aware of this. She is so deeply entrenched in her class and poverty that she considers her circumstances to be a consequence of her choices and her experience only. She does not complain about the system and the messed-up world around her that is absolutely responsible for her living situation. In fact she does not really complain much at all in the story about her predicament, only wakes up every morning and does her job with the hope of things getting better, or actually, with the hope of things not getting any worse. Is that the Australian dream now? The hope that things don’t get worse? In this current political and economic climate it certainly feels that way. That house prices in big cities drop because people can’t afford to keep them when interest rates rise is a very simple example of this. Just like Lily, we keep on going, we keep waking up to work and to come home with enough money to get us through until we are next paid. And just like Lily, we have no solution for it. Lily is the patron saint of the working class. Armed with her brushes and chemicals, she labours away, humbly, and without much expectation. The miracle is that she keeps at it.
We’re remade by what we do, by the dirt and stains we meet. I don’t mind that the cleaning has reshaped my body, my hands, my sense of smell. I’m a cleaner.
O’Reilly’s prose owns the space on the page. We hear primarily from Lily in the first person, and Janks haunts the story every now and then, but their voices are distinct. For instance, Janks’ cutthroat observations, still and sustained in their quality, accumulate to make his troubled past more visceral and his current predicament more acceptable:
We drove around in his car with the windows open even though it was winter. I couldn’t breathe with them shut. Food wrappers and empty drink cans and cigarette butts composting in a thick sticky layer in the floor of the car. The vinyl seats were spewing foam, the gears screamed each time he shifted them up and moaned when he dropped them down.
The claustrophobia in Janks’ voice is dissimilar to the staccato whimsy in Lily’s:
It’s true that part of the contract with this house involves cleaning the windows every two months. There are three full walls of windows. But that’s why the sun lives here. That’s why happiness lives here. You can tell the people who live in this house love each other. How? Shannon asks me and I can’t answer but I know. There’s love in the molecules of the air and the crumbs in the toaster and the muddy shoe prints from the garden steps to the kitchen.
Lily is in touch with herself, her thoughts, in the way that someone who is enlightened and accepting is. Her composure is at times almost unnerving. Janks on the other hand is clumsy, emotional, fantastical.
In Other Houses, women are adept, but I don’t think this is a deliberate choice made by O’Reilly. I think it is just a very simple mirror held up to society. The men in the story often think they are in control. There is a nice example of this when Lily does not back down from an encounter with the bikies and eventually achieves her goal through sheer wit and good planning. The good planning in question does involve theft – but at this point the reader has suspended all judgement of Lily and is happy for her to do what she has to do. And what she has to do isn’t even for her own benefit – she’s not essentially stealing from the rich to give to the poor, to gain something, to move up – it’s just to settle a debt in the hope that it might bring Janks back. In another book, the stoicism of Lily’s character would annoy me, but in Other Houses it is truth-telling in a way that is disconcerting. And Lily is entirely self-aware in the way that survivors are. She does not ruminate on the morality of her decisions. She parades the masculine bravado we expect to see from Janks. She allows herself a cry but swiftly gets it together.
One of the comedic ways O’Reilly comments on the dichotomy between poor and rich is through the description of a sculpture in one of Lily’s client’s houses that very thinly treads the line between garbage and art. Aptly named Plastic Vortex,the floor-to-ceiling sculpture of various items such as lolly wrappers, CDs and broken toys, tells us something about the family that live in the house. In the same scene the ‘designer dog’ ends up strangled in the messy artwork. It made me wonder what the items in my house would say to a stranger. What assumptions they would make about my relationship, my health, my income. And it made me feel embarrassed too about my tchotchkes and how I’ve arranged them. But then I remembered I grew up poor and the embarrassment kind of dissipated. The silly little inexpensive things I keep might be rubbish but I’m not pretending that they’re art like privileged folk do. Experiencing poverty makes you see things for what they are. And I don’t mean this in a cynical way that deconstructs all art into assemblages of materials, I mean that having less makes you identify with things less – to care less. And isn’t that the easiest way to get through this shitstorm? To care less? Lily would agree. By having access to people’s houses she has concluded that ‘we are a species full of folly and insecurity about what people think of us’ and she doesn’t seem to care what people think of her when they see her house:
Maybe we never learned how to show that we care, in that front-garden way at least. No time for garden care with all the other cares. The person I care about the most in the world, the one I have to protect right now, hovers anxiously in the doorway…
I coincidentally read Other Houses in the same week I learned that a documentary is being made about Sandra Pankhurst and watched a film called Ouistreham (Between Two Worlds). Sandra Pankhurst was at the centre of the multi award-winning 2017 biography The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein, which tells the story of her cleaning business, one that specialises in hoarding and crime scene clean-ups. Ouistreham is a 2021 Emmanuel Carrère film starring Juliette Binoche which follows a privileged author going incognito with a troupe of working-class cleaners in an effort to bring concreteness to the characters of her next novel. I held my breath when reading and watching these texts, waiting for the authors and filmmakers to slip up, to condescend the cleaners, to say something without compassion or with too much poetry, but they didn’t disappoint. I’m glad to not have to read about success stories anymore but I’m gladder to read about the working-class and the poor without worrying about the ethics of the storytelling. Still, Ouistreham was reviewed poorly by critics who did not see Carrère’s point about the author’s exploitation of the cleaners – that her life went on and she successfully released a book as the cleaners kept on cleaning. They must have expected to see the author taken down in a penultimate moment, but Carrère’s conclusion was authentic, the most likely, and hit home. I watched the film at the Len Lye cinema in New Plymouth. It was a scant crowd, and I was the only one not wearing a silk scarf or designer glasses, and the only one who, at the end of the film, was in ugly crying mode.
I mentioned that one of the main threads in the novel is Janks’ disappearance and I haven’t spent much time discussing the storyline because I have decided that it isn’t ultimately all that important to an evaluation of the novel. If O’Reilly had left Janks out, written about a single-mother-cleaner struggling to make ends meet and to contain her teenage daughter, I would have been just as riveted because, more than anything, Other Houses is an ode to a life lived working and trying. A life that hasn’t been afforded any luxuries, any relaxation. Lily, like so many of us, hustles and it’s not necessarily to achieve anything other than survival.